Ulu l-Amr (Arabic: أولو الأَمْر, literally: people of authority) are people who must be obeyed according to the Qur'an. The term occurs in Qur'an 4:59, known as the Ulu l-Amr Verse. In theological and exegetical books, there is an ample body of debates over the infallibility and identity of Ulu l-Amr. According to the Shi'a, the Ulu l-Amr Verse implies the infallibility of Ulu l-Amr; thus, "Ulu l-Amr" refers to the Twelve Imams of the Shi'as. However, the majority of Sunni scholars deny that the verse implies the infallibility of Ulu l-Amr. They take Ulu l-Amr to include Rashidun Caliphs, just and pious rulers, and consensus.
Infallibility of Ulu l-Amr
The Shiite argument for the infallibility of Ulu l-Amr is based on the claim that the verse has ordered the obedience of Ulu l-Amr in an unqualified, unconditional way. The claim is supported in two ways. For one thing, they appeal to the unqualified order issued in this verse, that is, the fact that no exceptions are mentioned for the obligation of obeying Ulu l-Amr. For another, the obligation of obeying Ulu l-Amr is along with the obligation of obeying the Prophet (s). This, they argue, shows that Ulu l-Amr must be obeyed in an unqualified way just as the Prophet (s) must.
Thus, the argument proceeds as follows, "According to the Ulu l-Amr Verse, it is an unqualified, unconditional obligation to obey Ulu l-Amr". If Ulu l-Amr were not infallible and thus they ordered something which is forbidden in shari'a, then there will be a conflict between two Divine commands, since, on the one hand, there is an obligation to obey Ulu l-Amr and do the forbidden act, and, on the other hand, the act is forbidden by God, thus we are obliged to avoid it. Thus, Ulu l-Amr should be infallible.
The same view has been espoused by the Sunni scholar, al-Fakhr al-Razi, as well. However, other Sunni scholars believe that the obligation of obeying Ulu l-Amr is not unqualified and unconditional, since after announcing the obligation of obeying Ulu l-Amr, the verse goes on as follows, "And if you dispute concerning anything, refer it to Allah and the Prophet (s)". Thus, if Ulu l-Amr order something forbidden, they must not be obeyed. Thus, they believe that the verse does not imply the infallibility of Ulu l-Amr.
However, the Shi'a believe that the command in the verse is expressed in a way that cannot be subject to exceptions, that is, it commonsensically implies that Ulu l-Amr must be obeyed unconditionally, which implies their infallibility.
Instances of Ulu l-Amr
There are many debates in Shiite and Sunni exegeses of the Qur'an about instances of Ulu l-Amr. There is a fundamental disagreement between the Shi'as and the Sunnis on this issue as well. The Shi'a appeal to hadiths, including Hadith Jabir, Hadith al-Safina, and Hadith al-Thaqalayn, to show that the only instances of Ulu l-Amr are their Twelve Imams (a). According to al-'Allama al-Hilli, there are mutawatir hadiths transmitted by Shi'as and Sunnis, which show that the Twelve Imams are the only instances of Ulu l-Amr.
The view is not accepted by Sunni scholars. They disagree among themselves as to who Ulu l-Amr are. Ulu l-Amr are believed by some of them to be Rashidun Caliphs, and by others to be religious scholars, and still by others to be commanders of battles. According to al-Zamakhshari, Ulu l-Amr are just rulers who rule in accordance with the religion, including the Rashidun Caliphs and rulers who act similarly to them.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi believes, in agreement with the Shi'a and contrary to other Sunni scholars, that Ulu l-Amr should be infallible. Thus, he takes "Ulu l-Amr" to refer to consensus. His argument proceeds as follows, "The "infallible" is either the whole Islamic Umma, or some members of it. Since it is not possible to know infallible individuals, the infallible cannot be some members of the Islamic Umma. Therefore, the "infallible" refers to the consensus of the whole Islamic Umma. By "consensus" he means People of Loosing and Binding (ahl al-hall wa l-'aqd), that is, Muslim clergies.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from اولو الامر in Farsi WikiShia.